'We come to you': Sarajevo volunteers aid isolated elderly

Sarajevo (AFP) –


"Stay at home, we come to you" is the motto of a Bosnian volunteer brigade helping the elderly survive the coronavirus lockdown in Sarajevo, a city that hasn't seen a curfew since war in the 1990s.

Hoping to curb the spread of the virus which has claimed nearly 20 lives in the poor Balkan state, authorities have imposed nightly curfews, shuttered businesses and banned public gatherings.

But restrictions are far tougher for the most vulnerable -- residents over the age of 65 and under 18 -- who have been given special orders to stay home around the clock.

Thankfully, the Sarajevo Volunteer Team (TVS) has sprung into action.

First formed during a flood crisis in 2014, the organisation is back to help deliver groceries and medicine to the city's older residents.

Over the past three weeks, several dozen volunteers have made more than 500 such trips around the Bosnian capital, offering food but also brief moments of welcome social interaction.

"Bring whatever you find. Thank you so much," Hamza Kemal, a 70-year-old said with gratitude as he handed a shopping list to Kana Custovic, a 22-year-old volunteer, outside his apartment in the city centre.

Like their peers in the city of 400,000, Kemal and his wife haven't left their home for three weeks.

Twenty minutes later, the young woman returned with two bags full of food, carefully keeping her distance.

"There is some risk of contamination, but we take care wherever possible," Custovic told AFP.

"We respect the rules, we pay attention to distance and no contact," she explained.

- War memories -

"We respect the rules, we pay attention to distance and no contact," she explained.

For Hajrija Divic, a bespectacled 70-year-old, the lockdown brings back bleak memories of Bosnia's devastating war 25 years ago, the last time such restrictions on movement were in place.

While this time around the country has been spared the horrendous violence that claimed more than 100,000 lives, Sarajevo's deserted streets and confinement still recall the long days of the capital's nearly four-year siege.

"We are entering the fourth week of confinement. It's huge what these young people are doing for us," said Divic.

She and her husband, 73-year-old Fikret, are passing the time with housework and cooking.

They try to avoid watching TV because it's "only about the virus", she added.

What they really miss is getting some sun and fresh air.

"Just seeing someone knocking on the door makes us feel good," she added.

"But mostly I'm afraid this is going to last for a while."